Perhaps you know someone for whom exercise is the be-all-end-all of their existence. They revolve all other activities around their daily workouts. They grow anxious at the thought of missing a day of exercise or having to cut back their routine. They’ve exercised despite injury, illness, or advice from a medical professional. Perhaps this person is a friend or loved one. Or perhaps this person is you.
Exercise addiction, also called compulsive exercise and exercise dependence in scientific literature, is a distressful pattern of behavior involving a near constant craving to engage in physical activity. It is often but not always accompanied by a preoccupation with weight or size. It does not discriminate by gender, though it may manifest differently in men and women. (Men, for instance, may grow obsessed with building muscle and engaging in extreme endurance exercise; women may grow obsessed with losing weight or staying trim.)
We use the term exerholic to refer to a person who relates to exercise as an alcoholic does to drinking — that is to say: in an addictive manner. This person does not feel able to engage in a moderate amount of exercise. For the exerholic, physical activity regularly interferes with their personal — and sometimes their professional — lives. It has disrupted their sleep, impacted their physical health, and thrown a wrench in their mental wellbeing.
An exerholic may have attempted to scale back the time they spend working out, only to feel as if they cannot limit their activity or intensity. They grow anxious, sometimes irate, at the prospect of not being able to exercise as planned. They lose touch with hobbies they may have formerly enjoyed. They have little energy for relationships, romantic or platonic. Their days are consumed with thoughts about, activities related to, and recovery from exercise.
They are also not alone. Approximately 3% of the population has been estimated to meet the criteria for exercise dependence. That prevalence may be higher among certain groups. A 2002 study conducted among triathletes found that over half of them were addicted to exercise while an earlier study conducted in 1998 found that 26% of male runners and 25% of female runners were addicted to their sport of choice.
Additional estimates have been higher (one study found up to 77% of runners assessed were moderately to highly addicted to running). Others have been lower (think: 2.5% of the exercising population, as Heather Hausenblas found in 2002). But the truth about exercise addiction is that it isn’t as unusual — nor nearly as desirable — as many people may think.
Contrary to the popular notion that too much exercise is never enough and that more is always better, research is discovering that yes, you can exercise too much — and if you do so for extended periods of time, you are putting yourself at short and long term health risks.
Unfortunately, an overzealous attitude towards exercise is not an uncommon one in our current culture. Even individuals who may not be exerholics themselves may share the misconceptions and extreme assumptions that fuel compulsive and addictive fitness behavior. As an example, try telling someone you went to the gym every day this week, sometimes twice a day and that you’re planning on going again first thing tomorrow, despite feeling exhausted, nauseous, and sore. You’re far more likely to get the response “wow, that’s so impressive” or “I should be more like you” than “is everything okay?” or “don’t you think that’s a bit much?”
An exerholic may be aware that his or her behavior is unhealthy but what differentiates them from someone who has a healthier relationship with physical activity is their inability to reduce the amount of time they spend exercising in light of that awareness. (Yes, insight is a first step — but it’s one many of us, addicts or not, can get stuck in.) An exerholic may attempt to reduce his or her training time from two hours to one hour and thirty minutes, say. But come that hour and thirty minute mark they feel as if they are unable to stop.
Thoughts that they shouldn’t, or they can’t, for fear of losing the comfort or of their routine (or its ability to distract them from emotional pain in their lives) may grip their minds. If they do attempt to cease their activity, their bodies may be so used to a higher physical load that they feel they have too much energy not to continue. Or they may feel excessive amounts of guilt (“I did something bad”) or shame (“I, myself, am bad”) for falling short of previous benchmarks.
Unhinging ourselves from a behavior we’ve grown accustomed to is hard for anyone. Developing a more moderate relationship with something you’ve become addicted to or dependent upon is even harder. Overcoming exerholism is made all the more difficult by fitness culture, wearable technology, and inaccurate beliefs about exercise perpetuated by many media outlets. When everyone and everything around you seems to be reinforcing the belief that you should do more if you can and that you are better if you do not stop or slow down — atop the notion that there’s no such thing as too much exercise — how can you be expected to challenge that on your own?
Unfortunately, the painful and dangerous realities of exerholism are often obscured from most people’s awareness thanks to its symptoms being interpreted as positive rather than negative. Understanding what a healthy amount of exercise entails, and developing a more reasonable relationship with this behavior, thus requires more than just an individual level adjustment. If we are going to solve this issue, a paradigm shift is needed in the way we think about and relate to exercise as a culture — even if not everyone in that culture engages in an unhealthy level of exercise.
No matter who you are and how much you exercise, the cure for exerholism begins with — and requires — a massive re-education about what it means to “be fit.”